Penguin Cafe Orchestra - classic or dud?

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Strolling through Greenwich this afternoon, I picked up 'Preludes Airs and Yodels - a Penguin Cafe primer'. It's very pleasant, but I'm a bit confused as to whether I should like it... Is it shamefully twee (the soundtrack to a macrobiotic dinner party in Winchester in 1979)? Or discretely avant-garde (the music Erik Satie might have made had he grown up in a provincial market town watching Peter Greenaway films with Rene Magritte and Brian Eno)? Or a bit of both? You tell me. (Also feel free to tell me what to search/destroy/etc)

stevie t, Friday, 8 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

Jesus christ, Stevie, what are you on about this time? I know there's a natural surrealist gap to be filled after Steady Mike's recent defeat at the hands of the Trente Plateaux Raving Alliance, but you are risking your heartland support with all these bold ventures into obscure territory.

the pinefox, Friday, 8 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

First 2 albums are terrific as is the live 'When In Rome'. Yep, they can be awfully twee but anyone who can make a geat songs based on a rubber band being flicked can't be all bad.

philT, Friday, 8 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

...confused as to whether you *should* like it. You don't really mean that do you?

I've heard a couple of songs by them - telephone and rubber bands (or something like that), surface tension, oscar tango. Good music to listen to while lying in bed thinking about nothing in particular.

Kim, Saturday, 9 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

1. What is "a macrobiotic dinner party in Winchester in 1979" and what does it mean?

2. Other great song about a rubber band: David Bowie, 'Rubber Band'.

the pinefox, Saturday, 9 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

Stevie's line got me thinking of The Drumlake Experiment, that mocked- up 1979 BBC2 documentary from "Brass Eye" about a boarding school in Hampshire where drug-taking was compulsory (the exact antithesis of WinColl, you might say). I wonder whether that was in his mind ...

Robin Carmody, Saturday, 9 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

It's up to you whether you should like or not. I picked up that record for £4.99 at HMV and it's one of the best value for money records ever. I love it, they have their own sound (they have their influences, but then again, who hasn't) but they created their own 'thing' and it's great. A complete classic.

Julio Desouza, Tuesday, 12 June 2001 00:00 (twenty years ago) link

two years pass...
Just wanted to chime in on how great this group was... I finally found CDs for their first record Music From The Penguin Cafe(1976) and Broadcasting From Home (1984).. and they are all great. (I have all of them on vinyl but want to secure Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981) and Signs Of Life (1987) if I can).

Any of you who are fans of Rachel's or the more symphonic High Llamas stuff MUST MUST MUST investigate.

donut bitch (donut), Monday, 8 March 2004 02:05 (seventeen years ago) link

DB, I have the s/t on CD and will be selling it shortly--email me.

Matos W.K. (M Matos), Monday, 8 March 2004 23:46 (seventeen years ago) link


(the sound of a penguin... I think)

donut bitch (donut), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 00:56 (seventeen years ago) link

(So maybe I should finally listen to that one CD I have of theirs...)

Ned Raggett (Ned), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 02:36 (seventeen years ago) link

when i bought my copy of here come the warm jets way back when it was actually a copy of the first penguin cafe inside!

strongo hulkington (dubplatestyle), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 02:38 (seventeen years ago) link

! I like that! :-)

Ned Raggett (Ned), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 02:38 (seventeen years ago) link

then i bought ANOTHER copy (or exchanged as the case may be), opened it up, and there it was again! this time i actually listened before i returned it and it was actually the eno album. so um i've never actually heard them.

strongo hulkington (dubplatestyle), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 02:39 (seventeen years ago) link

Every time you do not listen to the Café Orchestra, a penguine dies.

t\'\'t (t\'\'t), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 02:45 (seventeen years ago) link

Penguine? Is this the goth spelling?

donut bitch (donut), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 05:11 (seventeen years ago) link, 'goth penguin':

Ned Raggett (Ned), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 05:13 (seventeen years ago) link

the ones of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra album covers are far more goth.

("How many licks of a use of the goth term does it take to get Alex in NYC incensed?")

donut bitch (donut), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 05:45 (seventeen years ago) link

you gothnut bitche, you!

t\'\'t (t\'\'t), Tuesday, 9 March 2004 11:36 (seventeen years ago) link

two months pass...
OK, I'm totally immersed in the PCO right now... I have everything by them.. even the live records and the box set. I can't think of any other "easy listening" band right now that's actually easy to listen to! The music is just timeless, and I mean that definitively. A newbie would have no idea if a song was from 1976 or 2004 or anywhere in between. Anyone who liked the "prettier" Thrill Jockey releases of the past half decade should certainly pick up Music From The Penguin Cafe (1976) or Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981) or hell ANY of them... Broadcasting From Home (1984), Signs of Life (1987), and especially the underrated Union Cafe (1993).. and even Simon Jeffes' posthumous release (after his sad passing away in 1997) Piano Music. The live records When In Rome... (1988) and Concert Program (1995) are also amazing. All of it.. great.
Get me out of this well of goodness.. just try.

donut bitch (donut), Tuesday, 8 June 2004 21:06 (seventeen years ago) link

I remember liking some PCO orchestra a long time ago but recently got some that I didn't get so into, but have to listen more to. My obsession with this type of stuff was discussed on my "post-minimalist" thread...and I'm currently following it up by buying all the Obscure Music releases and exploring Nyman and Bryars more. Have you read Nyman's book?

Dan Selzer (Dan Selzer), Tuesday, 8 June 2004 21:58 (seventeen years ago) link

Nope, haven't read the Nyman book.

I do have one Gavin Bryars release.. Sinking Of The Titanic... definitely more on the Eno ambient tip.. like Discreet Music.

I think what's really appealing about PCO to me nowadays is that I'm travelling a lot, and besides being excellent travel music, it's really the one thing I can listen to that can make me bop my head but not make me turn it up so loud such that I annoy my fellow passengers on the plane or train.

donut bitch (donut), Wednesday, 9 June 2004 00:19 (seventeen years ago) link

(my headphones, while great headphones, badly leak, apparently)

donut bitch (donut), Wednesday, 9 June 2004 00:21 (seventeen years ago) link

seven months pass...
Recent piece on Perfect Sound Forever on the PCO.

(STILL the most overlooked band in Western popular music ever, imho.)

donut christ (donut), Sunday, 23 January 2005 21:02 (sixteen years ago) link

four months pass...
One of the best groups ever; utterly and emphatically Classic.

metalmickey, Monday, 23 May 2005 16:07 (sixteen years ago) link

Duh! ;)

donut debonair (donut), Monday, 23 May 2005 16:37 (sixteen years ago) link

Here's a blurb I wrote on another forum for my own personal rough guide to the PCO:

Aside from being a grossly underrated band, they're a grossly miscategorized band, too... "New Age" is often where they're filed under for people who only give them a flash listen.. although I think they are far beyond that genre. Let's just say if John Fahey is one side of the mass influence on the whole Jim O'Rourke/"smooth" Thrill Jockey aesthetic, then Penguin Cafe Orchestra are the overlooked second half of that mass influence.

The band at the core has always been Simon Jeffes, who started the group in the early 70s and has always been a close contemporary of Brian Eno's -- if that gives a hint of where this music lies. The band have sporadically put out albums all the way until the mid 90s...sadly, Jeffes died of a brain tumor in 1997. There have been a few live albums, like When In Rome... (1988) (recorded in England of course) and Concert Programme (1995) that have been released that are great, too... but their best two albums are easily their first two.. Music From The Penguin Cafe (1976) and Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981).

What sets the Penguin Cafe Orchestra apart from any other assemblance of mostly acoustic band/orchestras is their knack for being able to combine fun and minimalism and dynamics into something that's universally enjoyable, without having to require being LOUD then .... soft, etc. From someone coming from a college radio standpoint, I think they're the perfect bridge to music that would sit easily in an environment that requires "mellow" music... say, a coffeeshop, or what not. Granted, the word "Cafe" in the band name does suggest that, not-so-subconsciously, although the name comes from the location in a dream Jeffes had one time after a severe bout of food poisoning... anyway. here's the almost 80-minute rough guide:

...from Music From The Penguin Cafe (1976)
1. Penguin Cafe Single
2. Zopf a) From The Colonies
3. Zopf d) Milk
4. Zopf f) Giles Farnaby's Dream

...from Pengiun Cafe Orchestra (1981)
5. Air À Danser
6. Yodel 1
7. Telephone And Rubber Band
8. Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter
9. The Ecstasy Of Dancing Fleas
10. Steady State

...from Broadcasting From Home (1984)
11. Music For A Found Harmonium
12. Now Nothing

...from Signs Of Life (1987)
13. Horns Of The Bull
14. Sketch
15. Perpetuum Mobile

...from Union Cafe (1993)
16. Cage Dead
17. Organum
18. Another One From Porlock
19. Silver Star Of Bologna
20. Lie Back And Think Of England
21. Red Shorts

donut debonair (donut), Monday, 23 May 2005 16:44 (sixteen years ago) link

I've been looking for this stuff for a while but it seems like this is very difficult to find in (continental) Europe...

The Emancipation of Baaderonixx (KERERU 4 LIFE!) (Fabfunk), Tuesday, 24 May 2005 09:19 (sixteen years ago) link

That's odd, given that EG (which I think is both Stateside and European, unless I'm mistaken) has also been their label, until Jeffes start the Zopf label in Europe in the 90s.

Amazon's been my best bet for PCO stuff, really. No record store really carries them, because no record store knows exactly a) who they are, b) what albums to get, and c) what section of the record store to put them in. They've completely been erased from history since the late 80s, for whatever reason.

donut debonair (donut), Tuesday, 24 May 2005 16:29 (sixteen years ago) link

these are usually damned to the purgatory of the new age bin if there is one; if not, try the jazz section. but yeah, they might even be out of print now

kyle (akmonday), Tuesday, 24 May 2005 16:47 (sixteen years ago) link

three weeks pass...
Hah! I've finally received the 1st album from Amazon and I have to concur, this is so great! I expected to like it from what I'd read but I didn't think it would sound so "fresh", for lack of a better word, and dynamic. Thanks to Donut in any case, who really inspired me to seek this out.

Die Emanzipation von Baaderonixx (redukt) (Fabfunk), Wednesday, 15 June 2005 19:23 (sixteen years ago) link

one month passes...
I just got "A Brief History". It's very nice, but on cursory listens that's about it - it's a bit too safe and while nice as background music, there's little or no deviation throughout this compilation. Yet I want them to be so much more - can anyone help out here?

dog latin (dog latin), Wednesday, 20 July 2005 17:40 (sixteen years ago) link

"A Brief History" is a bit too safe IMHO. If you feel the same, you're best off getting the self-titled album Penguin Cafe Orchestra from 1981, or the first one, Music From The Penguin Cafe from 1976. If you like those, then move forward to the later ones.

My favorite is the last one, Union Cafe, from 1993.. It's a double-album, and i think it has the best songs on it.. then again, I like Jeffes' piano work a lot, and this has quite a bit of it.. it's also not as "folky" as the previous ones... (not saying that's bad or good, just sayin')

donut ferry (donut), Wednesday, 20 July 2005 17:49 (sixteen years ago) link

Oh, I agree. Sadly overlooked. Great stuff.

Edward Bax (EdBax), Wednesday, 20 July 2005 19:50 (sixteen years ago) link

The Self-titled one has proven to be great music to listen to while cooking dinnerits bouncy mellowness really takes the edge off cutting up carrots and onions and what-have-you.

although, my enjoyment of this album and my cooking of dinner have made me feel as if i might be turning into a yuppie. that and thouroughly enjoying Paul Simon's Graceland all last week. yup.

brontosaur, Wednesday, 20 July 2005 20:01 (sixteen years ago) link




"G" word.

donut ferry (donut), Wednesday, 20 July 2005 20:16 (sixteen years ago) link

one year passes...

I don't suppose anybody recorded the Radio 4 doc about the Penguin Cafe Orchestra at the end of May? If anyone could provide me with a copy I'd be forever grateful.

ozbash, Saturday, 7 July 2007 19:14 (fourteen years ago) link

ten months pass...

That documentary is on the BBC iplayer at the moment. It's fascinating to hear how some of the tracks came together.

The Wayward Johnny B, Sunday, 1 June 2008 19:44 (thirteen years ago) link

Is it actually the same documentary?!

toby, Sunday, 1 June 2008 23:58 (thirteen years ago) link



teflon monkey, Monday, 2 June 2008 03:59 (thirteen years ago) link

they make the best rainy day music :\ :)

sleepingbag, Monday, 2 June 2008 08:22 (thirteen years ago) link

Thinking about it, it 100% isn't the same documentary, because this one featured stuff about the December 07 reunion concerts...

toby, Monday, 2 June 2008 12:18 (thirteen years ago) link

one month passes...

I've just received remasters of five Penguin Cafe Orchestra albums, and am now hearing their music for the first time (I think, although the very first track was familiar).

This is lovely.

Carry on.

Matthew H, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 14:45 (thirteen years ago) link

OK, here comes the cliche:

"But the originals sounded really gorgeous anyway!"

But it's true. Do the remasters come with bonuses? Or are they just reissues? Cuz I think some of the CDs were out of print if I'm not mistaken.

Mackro Mackro, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 14:52 (thirteen years ago) link

Listening to "Telephone and Rubber Band" right now. The only song of theirs I have. (Thank you, 1981 comp!) So amazing -- why don't I have any of their records?

Guayaquil (eephus!), Wednesday, 9 July 2008 15:07 (thirteen years ago) link

Just straight reissues:

Music From...
Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Broadcasting From Home
Signs Of Life
When In Rome

Matthew H, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 15:09 (thirteen years ago) link

Huh, no Union Cafe? That's, like, their best one, second to s/t.

Mackro Mackro, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 15:53 (thirteen years ago) link

The originals do sound wicked, and PCO certainly don't need their levels bumping up to compete with Coldplay or whatever, BUT remastering gives a fantastic reason to reprint artrwork with better technology and rerelease these ace records witha bit of publicity and win a new audience, potentially.

Scik Mouthy, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 16:06 (thirteen years ago) link

two weeks pass...

The remaster of the self-titled album arrived today as the Album of the Month from the Rough Trade Album Club. It came with a sampler CD of all their other albums. I had never heard any of this stuff before; it's really beautiful and so incredibly well produced.

Savannah Smiles, Friday, 25 July 2008 16:28 (thirteen years ago) link

So happy about these reissues. I just picked up s/t (my favorite) and will get the others eventually. What a great band.

If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport, Tuesday, 29 July 2008 15:33 (thirteen years ago) link

I think the thing I love most about PCO is that when I first discovered them, I had a feeling what they'd sound like just based on the artwork and name. Is it right to say they're the kind of like the soundtrack to the most amazing dream you ever had but can't really remember?

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 10 January 2014 15:50 (seven years ago) link

That seems pretty fair to me.

I can still taste the Taboo in my mouth when I hear those songs (Scik Mouthy), Friday, 10 January 2014 15:52 (seven years ago) link

I bought a record for $4 (Broadcasting from Home) just because I was amused by the name and artwork. One of the few times that's worked out!

frogbs, Friday, 10 January 2014 15:57 (seven years ago) link

Yeah, I'm not at all feeling that artwork.

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 10 January 2014 16:10 (seven years ago) link

I'm assuming the one on the right is a Budgie album.

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 10 January 2014 16:10 (seven years ago) link


tench and pike, scaup and snipe (NickB), Friday, 10 January 2014 16:13 (seven years ago) link

Seems that PCO and Penguin Cafe and not exactly the same thing:

I haven't heard Penguin Cafe yet.

Artichoke, Badger, Cornflower, Daisy (doo dah), Friday, 10 January 2014 17:14 (seven years ago) link


i also enjoy in line skateing (spazzmatazz), Friday, 10 January 2014 18:23 (seven years ago) link

Is it right to say they're the kind of like the soundtrack to the most amazing dream you ever had but can't really remember?

that's pretty close. I would have said it's the soundtrack of pure joy and creative energy... maybe like the most amazing dream you've ever had!

Poliopolice, Friday, 10 January 2014 18:47 (seven years ago) link

Have we polled these guys?

licorice oratorio (baaderonixx), Friday, 10 January 2014 21:06 (seven years ago) link

one month passes...

Has anyone heard the new one?

afriendlypioneer, Tuesday, 18 February 2014 21:33 (seven years ago) link

new one? how?

Poliopolice, Tuesday, 18 February 2014 21:48 (seven years ago) link

It's just "Penguin Cafe."

afriendlypioneer, Tuesday, 18 February 2014 21:53 (seven years ago) link

i'm curious about it, but somehow i feel like the boundless beauty and joyfulness of PCO cannot be recreated so easily. maybe i'm wrong.

Poliopolice, Tuesday, 18 February 2014 22:07 (seven years ago) link

I hear you, and I think they missed the mark with their last album. IT's definitely not vintage PCO. I still have hope that his son can carry on his legacy, however.

afriendlypioneer, Wednesday, 19 February 2014 15:50 (seven years ago) link

Is it really PCO without Jeffes

global tetrahedron, Wednesday, 19 February 2014 16:41 (seven years ago) link

I listened to the one that came out a couple years ago recently, and it definitely didn't have the same charm as the classic records. I think it's possible that someone could potentially recapture some of the magic. It seems to me that his son gets what made PCO wonderful, but he's just not there yet. The art on this new one leaves me wanting. That's for sure.

afriendlypioneer, Thursday, 20 February 2014 16:42 (seven years ago) link

the cover art is an affront to the PCO legacy... but then again, if they had made it in the same vein, I would also have been offended ("how dare they!").

Poliopolice, Thursday, 20 February 2014 18:27 (seven years ago) link

True. AllMusic credits say it's the same artist who did the old record sleeves.

afriendlypioneer, Thursday, 20 February 2014 21:06 (seven years ago) link

^emily young: jeffes' partner of the time and mother of the current leader, i believe (also supposedly the emily of see emily play according to wiki). not sure if they've done any recording, but there were a bunch of ex-pco people playing live shows at one time under another name after a falling out of some type with jeffes jr.

no lime tangier, Friday, 21 February 2014 01:20 (seven years ago) link

I never would have suspected such a close link from Pink Floyd to the PCO! My fab discovery of the day.....

Lee626, Friday, 21 February 2014 02:20 (seven years ago) link

I heard about that group, no lime tangier.

Didn't know it was a result of discord, but I wondered why there was a splinter group.

Has anyone had a listen to The Red Book yet? I plan on giving it a whirl this weekend. I'm pretty tempted to purchase it just because it is the Penguin Cafe...

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 21 February 2014 16:29 (seven years ago) link

I listened to the 3 tracks on Spotify. They're kind of downers.

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 21 February 2014 19:24 (seven years ago) link

downers because they're bad or because they're sad songs?

Poliopolice, Friday, 21 February 2014 19:26 (seven years ago) link

Sad songs.

afriendlypioneer, Friday, 21 February 2014 19:45 (seven years ago) link

sometimes i think this is the prettiest thing i've ever heard:

global tetrahedron, Thursday, 27 February 2014 03:20 (seven years ago) link

Wiki says they supported Kraftwerk at the Roundhouse in 1976... oh man what a night that must have been.

my father will guide me up the stairs to bed (anagram), Thursday, 27 February 2014 08:57 (seven years ago) link

My wife came out to this at our wedding.

afriendlypioneer, Thursday, 27 February 2014 15:41 (seven years ago) link

I got misty eyed...

afriendlypioneer, Thursday, 27 February 2014 15:41 (seven years ago) link

I had Bean Fields playing at my weddding!

Poliopolice, Thursday, 27 February 2014 21:42 (seven years ago) link

ten months pass...


also the live in rome take of this is really good. as is the whole thing!!

global tetrahedron, Tuesday, 30 December 2014 03:45 (six years ago) link

anyone who claims they dislike the music of PCO are lying

ET sippin the wig (spazzmatazz), Tuesday, 30 December 2014 07:39 (six years ago) link

Wasn't this album cover adapted into "Eyes Wide Shut?"

Love this group. One of the sadder aspects of Jeffes death is that he and the band were so obscure (by design, really) that not a lot of people took notice.

Josh in Chicago, Tuesday, 30 December 2014 17:00 (six years ago) link

two months pass...

Still haven't heard The Red Book. I do really like this new song, however:

afriendlypioneer, Saturday, 21 March 2015 16:37 (six years ago) link

three years pass...


flappy bird, Thursday, 5 April 2018 05:34 (three years ago) link

I’m super into Broadcasting From Home these days, might be my fave PCO now

when worlds collide I'll see you again (Jon not Jon), Thursday, 5 April 2018 11:48 (three years ago) link

one year passes...

The new Penguin Cafe album called Handfuls of Night is quite nice, calm, slow, slightly melancholic instrumental music with classical instruments. The Penguin Cafe is hosted by Arthur Jeffes, Simon Jeffes son.

walking towards the sun since 2007 (alex in mainhattan), Sunday, 29 December 2019 18:16 (one year ago) link

eight months pass...

If anyone is needing a PCO/gentle chamber music fix, this (2018) Group Listening record is doing it for me right now.

Vanishing Point (Chinaski), Monday, 14 September 2020 19:46 (one year ago) link

Thank you!

flappy bird, Monday, 14 September 2020 19:58 (one year ago) link

Thanks, this is really good and does indeed hit the Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe (though on first listen not with the same richness, but -- who does?)

Guayaquil (eephus!), Monday, 14 September 2020 20:23 (one year ago) link

An Arthur Russell cover, no less! This is nice.

Paul Ponzi, Tuesday, 15 September 2020 00:02 (one year ago) link

I've listened to the album a few times over the last couple of days and aye, not quite in the same league as PCO but lovely all the same.

Vanishing Point (Chinaski), Tuesday, 15 September 2020 14:46 (one year ago) link

seven months pass...

listening to the first album now and yeah: why did i pass on this record so many times? this is "where have you been all my life" kind of good.

Totally different head. Totally. (Austin), Monday, 26 April 2021 04:17 (seven months ago) link

absolutely! what a great vibe

Blues Guitar Solo Heatmap (Free Download) (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Monday, 26 April 2021 04:26 (seven months ago) link

First 2 albums (Music from PCO and PCO respectivly) are both great. I was haunted by the cover of the 1st album way before hearing it. Gotta say I prefer the weird folk of the 2nd album to the more dreamy 1st but they both sound great on a Sunday morning.

I have no couch and I must stream (NotEnough), Monday, 26 April 2021 16:47 (seven months ago) link

the hiphop group i was in many years ago had a track where we sampled "telephone and rubberband" and somebody in the audience at one of our shows knew the sample and booed us and gave the double thumbs down. good times.

Totally different head. Totally. (Austin), Monday, 26 April 2021 20:28 (seven months ago) link

six months pass...

Austin where do you live that hiphop crowds are full of Penguin Cafe Orchestra fans

frogbs, Wednesday, 24 November 2021 04:36 (one week ago) link

I guess if I'm gonna bump this thread I should comment on their music. what I really like is how casually brilliant they could be. that horn bit on "In the Back of a Taxi" is a good example. Its a goofy moment but its also perfect. Also I noticed "Heartwind" has a cowrite by Ryuichi Sakamoto...did they work together or did they borrow a melody?

frogbs, Wednesday, 24 November 2021 04:44 (one week ago) link

It was in Reno, frogs. No idea who the guy was. We were playing on a benefit bill with all different types of bands, one of which was a group of aging old school punks playing semi-joke "pirate rock", so I've always assumed our heckler was someone from that lot.

The name of their band was Scurvy Bastards, by the way.

I love Penguin Cafe Orchestra, also by the way.

please don't refer to me as (Austin), Wednesday, 24 November 2021 05:15 (one week ago) link

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